Utilitarianism – the Final Word on Morality?

John Stuart Mill: One of the 'Fathers' of Utilitarianism

John Stuart Mill: One of the ‘Fathers’ of Utilitarianism

Consequentialism of some kind, usually Utilitarianism, is the ‘kneejerk’ moral theory of our time. It seems obvious to many people that the right – the moral – thing to do is whatever will produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Even the Government is keen to work out what it is that makes for ‘well-being’ (here is a speech the Prime Minister made arguing that the Government can help to produce well-being).

There is something clearly right about Utilitarianism. We undoubtedly do make moral decisions on the basis of which action is likely to produce the best outcome for all concerned.

medical intervention

medical intervention

The QALY is probably the most formal example of this: which intervention should be given to which patient is often decided by a calculation of Quality Adjusted Life Years – how many more years the patients will live, what the quality of their life will be during those years, and what it will cost for each QALY (see here for a paper questioning the thinking behind the QALY).

Another reason Consequentialism (and particularly Utilitarianism) is favoured is that people believe it is not absolutist (if you’d like to learn more about the distinction between absolutism and relativism look at my short podcast here). If it will produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number a Utilitarian can lie, steal, break promises or even kill. (Of course the Utilitarian must take into his calculation the unhappiness engendered by breaking rules that society often treats as sacrosanct).

Utilitarianism, however, is absolutist. It holds as absolutely true – true everywhere for everyone at every time – that the right action is that which (tends) to produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Utilitarianism may not be absolutist about ‘lower order’ moral rules (‘do not lie’ etc.), but it is absolutist at a higher order.

It is in its non-absolutism, though, at the lower order, that Utilitarianism meets problems.

Human rights

Human rights

Oddly enough, in these Utilitarian times, we are very keen indeed on human rights. We hold them almost sacred.

But Utilitarianism has problems with the idea of human rights. After all if genocide would bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number, genocide is acceptable, morally acceptable. If one could bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number by enslaving a given population, on the other hand, then it is right – morally right – to enslave them.

We can try various ways to wriggle out of this on behalf of the Utilitarian. Many people would be unhappy about slavery – not least the slaves. But if we can find a way – any way – to make the utility calculus come out in favour of slavery then the utilitarian is committed to arguing that slavery is right, morally right.

Do you think Utilitarianism can survive this problem? Or does it show that however useful Utilitarianism is, it cannot be the final word on morality?

About Marianne

Marianne is Director of Studies in Philosophy at Oxford University's Department for Continuing Education
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40 Responses to Utilitarianism – the Final Word on Morality?

  1. Bill Radcliffe says:

    “But if we can find a way – any way – to make the utility calculus come out in favour of slavery then the utilitarian is committed to arguing that slavery is right, morally right.”

    But supposing that this is counterfactual – that there is NO way the calculus actually comes out like that. I accept that some might claim it can, but perhaps it is impossible for them to be right?

    • Marianne says:

      Hi Bill,

      If there is no way the Utilitarian Calculus comes out in favour of slavery then the Utilitarian ISN’t committed to claiming slavery is right!

  2. John-Brian Vyncent says:

    Utilitarianism is nothing more than an intellectually vacuous attempt at redefining “mob rule.”
    The central premise of all relativistic moral theories, of which utilitarianism is but one of many, is that the individual must conform and ultimately yield to the will of a preponderant society.

    As you so eloquently stated, all moral relativists are moral absolutists. Should a moral relativist find herself in the majority, then she absolutely believes it morally just for the individual to conform to the will of the majority. If she should find herself in the minority, with her individuality held in abeyance, then she proposes either “acts” or “rules” that favor her return to the majority. Thus, she is free from subjugation while retaining the option to disenfranchise the minority to which she no longer belongs.

    My answer to your question is therefore: Utilitarianism may only be considered the final word on morality provided we accept the utilitarian calculus for morality — as defined by an oligarchical collectivism empowered by a greater number of individuals seeking to benefit from a minority or individual — is just.

    • Marianne says:

      I think you underestimate Utilitarianism John-Brian. Although it has serious problems (as outlined in my blog), it is also a moral theory that many people use very naturally, and that people find extremely convincing. Even if, in the final analysis, it is the wrong theory, I do not believe it is ‘intellectually vacuous’, nor that is is ‘an attempt’ to redefine mob rule (by whom? Certainly not John Stuart Mill).

      I argue in my blog that Utilitarianism is NOT relativistic, at least not at the higher order. I am afraid I also disagree with (and certainly didn’t make!) your claim that all moral relativists are moral absolutists. All ‘vulgar’ relativists are moral absolutists (http://www.iep.utm.edu/moral-re/), but not all relativists are vulgar relativists.

      Oh dear, I seem to have disagreed with everything you’ve said – except I agree with part of your final claim – I do not think Utiltarianism can be the final word on morality.

      • John-Brian Vyncent says:

        Superb response that will greatly improve my argument! Away from this blog of course so as not to bore your participants.

        I do not believe we disagree in our position as much as we disagree on our focus. I, too, agree that moral relativism is one people find natural and extremely convincing. However, what feel’s good and natural, and is extremely convincing may not be morally just (extreme examples – slavery, genocide, torture, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc). I concur that, at higher orders Utilitarianism is not relativistic. But that presupposes Utilitarianism’s root or application is at least partially relativistic in order to apply different moral reasoning based on acts of an agent.

        My apologies for inadvertently and inappropriately combining your position (“Utilitarianism, however, is absolutist.”) with my beliefs (A – at some level Utilitarianism is morally relativistic; B – Utilitarianism is absolutist; hence C – all moral relativists are absolutist). Exceptionally poor wording on my part.

        May I pose some questions? First, is it not a contradiction to state a “moral theory” has “serious problems?” How can a just “moral theory” permit problems with morality? I do not believe in moral dilemmas so I readily admit this belief guides my reasoning.

        Second, where do I find your upcoming class? I have been unable to locate the offering on Oxford’s website. I am eager to attend one of your classes. Perhaps I may be allowed to submit a paper on how John Stuart Mill’s advocated political system based of universal suffrage with an individuals voting power commensurate to their education is the essence of “mob rule.” 🙂

      • Marianne says:

        Hi again John-Brian,

        Delighted my response will help you argue! Not sure why you should think there is a contradiction inherent in saying a moral theory has serious problems. The problems of course are logical and moral. Any moral theory is an attempt to postulate an explanation for our moral behaviour. It is a problem for any moral theory that it should generate a consequence that strikes us as immoral. If the theory is strong enough we might appeal to it to CHANGE our moral behaviour. But to do this it would have to be extremely strong. The problem I highlighted for utilitarianism is that it seems to generate the consequence that genocide and slavery might be morally acceptable.

        Not sure how you can not believe in moral dilemmas. If your Mum comes home from the hairdressers, strikes a pose and asks you what you think, and you think ‘yuk’ – you are facing a moral dilemma aren’t you?

        Which upcoming class are you interested in? I shan’t be teaching any classes for which you have to submit a paper (these days I do not have any time to mark papers for big classes).

  3. Adlai Englard says:

    What I cannot understand is: what do the Utilitarians mean when they speak of the greatest number? The greatest number of what? Of human beings? Of all living creatures on Earth? Of inhabitants of a particular country? And, how are the members of this greatest number of ( whatever) determined? How is this verified?
    Reading J.S. Mill’s Autobiography, it appears that he truly wanted the best existence possible for humanity, and he comes across as a man of high moral principles, yet the philosophical system he advocated can lead to a result diametrically opposed to his intentions, as your examples show.

    • Marianne says:

      That is a perfectly good question Adlai. But do not think the Utilitarians can’t answer it. They do, however, give different answers (which shows there are different types of Utilitarianism, one of which MAY be right!).But you are absolutely right to think it is a very important question. After all if we include animals (as Bentham did) then vegetarianism looks very different from the way it looks if we don’t include animals (Mill didn’t). If we include foetuses abortion, again, looks very different from the way it looks if we do not include foetuses. Perhaps Hitler was a good Utilitarian – he just didn’t include Jews?

      Who morally matters is one of the most important questions in ethics.

      Unfortunately we often do not think through all the logical consequences of our thoughts. Mill is to be congratulated for having given voice to an extremely well-thought of theory – one which has problems, sure, but which theory doesn’t?

      Thank you for your question!

  4. Ghazi says:

    As Adlai raised the questions, its quite interesting to note, who do you give more value and who is evaluating that ?? If it was about value and its consideration, UT certainly would never have advocated Genocide.
    Is UT sustainable too? does it contribute to GHGN without harming anyone else?
    There was a lot to read about UT, unfortunately i couldn’t go through all of them, after reading a few excerpts of Mill, a few things fascinated me and those were, “UT can’t quantify happiness and if it is so, then what does the statement, i was happier yesterday than i am today” doesn’t make sense. It’s just i don’t see any advantage of Utility and this theory, to me it seems to be very much governed and controlled by a centered happiness where there is a very high disregard of values of individual and happiness of others,
    A very simple logic is, GHGN-Greatest Happiness Greatest Number,
    Now lets say there are 100 people, now if 90 of them are happy by killing 10 or by pushing 10 out of the 100 for the sake of GHGN, then where does the value of 10 go? Where is the happiness of 10 go? it certainly is not greatest at all then, isn’t it?

    • Marianne says:

      If the Utilitarian had their way we would ALL be using the Utilitarian calculus presumably. I think you should try answering your own questions. You want to say that UT SHOULN’T advocate genocide. But I am talking about whether it DOES advocate genocide. It looks, to me, for the reason I give, that it cannot avoid advocating genocide (at least if we are talking about the knee-jerk version of UT – and perhaps we shouldn’t be?).

      When people say ‘you can’t quantify happiness, I think that is openly right if we think of ‘quantification’ as the sort of thing science does. Actually any human being can – often – compare the likely happiness to be produced by two different courses of actions.

      • Ghazi says:

        I shall try to understand the depth of UT, unfortunately don’t have much time 😦 but yea as far as advocacy of genocide is concerned for the sake of GHGN, it is nowhere a smart argument. Quantification of happiness can’t be done in term of science. It can be considered as a relative term but quantification is not possible.

      • Marianne says:

        Completely understand (and sympathise about) lack of time! I ares that science cannot quantify happiness – an instrumentalist account of happiness will always leave something out.

  5. Allan Popa says:

    Part of the problem is that utilitarianism and all this talk about “greater happiness” does not seem to take into consideration how desire works apropos mimesis. Populations do not desire things rationally they desire things which reproduce themselves as the desired object. Greatest happiness does not take into consideration ‘addiction’ – if we talk about enslavement then how should we feel about the enslaved ego? Happiness is certainly a value however to what it attaches itself is an incredible analysis in and of itself.

    Utilitarianism also does not take into consideration various economic issues: for instance, is it the best interest of the working class to have a better wage or is it their best interest for less people to be unemployed? What may be considered the greater happiness of aspects of a population may depend on the marginalisation of others.

    In terms of your criticism (slavery), I do agree that that is an issue which lower-order utilitarianism is incapable of properly defending itself. Perhaps the real issue is that people quite happily and inconsistently flow back and forth between deontology and consequentialism and the governing logic appears to be the value of human life and dignity in all cases. Perhaps there is a meta-ethic here of confronting the other in his or her own dignity prior to any ethic proper.

    Subsequently, concerning whether or not we can falsely believe we are happy:

    Perhaps we may falsely believe that a situation is happening which makes us happy; we may falsely believe that the government is providing us with a much more adequate healthcare system than is actually the case. However, would we be incorrect about our belief in our happiness or would we simply be incorrect about the circumstances which would make us happy?

    There are two issues here: as far as we may know we are happy with our healthcare system, however we may be mistaken about what we may know about our healthcare system. I may be wrong but it seems Aristotle is conflating the two into the one contention and I’m not sure if this is really how we tend to think about the issues… Am I mistaken in my interpretation of this?

    • Marianne says:

      The is a very long post Allan. I wonder if, in further you would think either of being more concise or breaking long posts into several posts? I am trying to respond to everyone who posts here, but must do this around the edges of my day job! I quail when I see such long posts!

    • Marianne says:

      Dear Allan,

      I am not sure what you mean by ‘they desire things which reproduce themselves as the desired object’? I do not think we need to take addiction into account – so long as we think that addiction produces only a simulacrum of happiness. Surely this suggests we CAN falsely believe we are happy?

      I absolutely disagree that UT cannot take into account the difference between paying people less or employing more. They will do whatever produces the GHGN – and if there is no difference between the GHGN produced by these two different courses of action then it will see them as morally indifferent.

      I DO think that people move between Ut and deontology (haven’t I already answered this somewhere??!). But I am not convinced this is inconsistent.

      Sorry out of time!

  6. Amer says:

    Hi all … although it seems to make for a sound basis of moral theory, when looking at it deeply, I don’t think it is fair to look at majority opinion. It is quite evident that people will shift the boundaries of their moral system to position themselves well inside that idea of “morally right”.

    A moral theory can be tested for its worth when you see people holding themselves to account for not meeting their intended targets. (It becomes a target for improvement).

    Of course that will have a relative “low” they won’t feel good for falling short of their own idea of “good”, so just like the UK education system they will lower the boundaries. So long as everyone can get a grade C. It happens in clothes/retail too, by calling the UK size 12 a US 10 or 8 does not mean the people are slimmer, they are just made to feel better for what they are … feel good factor as a measure of morality is like getting a footballer to kick a ball and moving the goal post so the ball goes in regardless. This idea is moral bankruptcy.

    I think perhaps the people who designed this approach were thinking about the conservative – liberal scale and their idea of centrality occupying a bell-curve distribution would imply greatest number – the right thing to do. Or perhaps, they were looking at happiness too simplistically in terms of crimes where criminals being happy for their crimes vs victims not being happy and people being happy for not being violated vs criminals not be happy for being prevented for their crimes.

    Traditionally morality has been an ideal marker for all people to strive towards and all people fall short of perfection. The Utilitarian method seems to be creating a cap, an upper limit for moral behaviour by the numbers game. The idea of vengeance being acceptable and turning the other cheek somehow being less desirable and hence lower in moral rating than eye for an eye, because more people would choose that disturbs me slightly. The best moral position should always be almost unattainable something angelic, in my opinion – it will force us all to work harder.

    • Marianne says:

      Hi Amer,

      Thank you for contributing! Many people have though the appeal to majority decision to solve moral problems immediately hits trouble. Doesn’t this mean that the minority will always lose out? Utilitarianism has often been charged with discrimination against the minority.

      The thing about ideals, as you say, is that we always fall short of them. There is no possibility of living up to all our ideals all the time. This is because moral dilemmas are ineliminable. That they are still ideals is manifested in the fact we feel guilty about not living up to them.

      I agree with you that it is A Good Thing that we must at all times strive to achieve our ideals.

  7. Terry says:

    HI Marianne, my thoughts tend toward saying that utilitarianism needs to compromise. It seems strong in that it somehow sees the social good when considering individual first. However, I would have to agree with the author of this book (Jonathan Haidt, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”- http://www.amazon.com/The-Righteous-Mind-Politics-Religion/dp/0307455777) that utilitarianism can lack consideration for the value of overall social cohesion which makes many achievements possible. What works for the individual is always good, but it’s hard to say how that translates to the whole. I really do think that the whole is greater than the sum of parts. It’s definitely true in architecture and I would think for society, as far as it has to work together to get the best results. (I can’t resist saying, it’s a good book. From experiments he did as a social psychologist, he proves that in many every day situations, intuitions proceed reasoning- a very worthwhile and useful insight).

    About defining happiness, there’s a great Elucidations podcast that makes the case that it’s not for attaining things at all, but how one deals with what life presents one with. (I could see the Greeks thinking about how slaves might be happy). Along those lines, I like to think of it as engaging with life successfully, or just being satisfied with where one is at. That sounds like Kant’s idea about people as ends in themselves. Hard to say how that links up with utilitarianism and society, though.

    In any case, here’s the quote from Kant I like so much about the will, and possibly happiness:

    if it should happen that, owing to
    special disfavour of fortune… this will should wholly lack power to accomplish
    its purpose, if with its greatest efforts it should yet achieve
    nothing, and there should remain only the good will (not, to be
    sure, a mere wish, but the summoning of all means in our power), then,
    like a jewel, it would still shine by its own light, as a thing
    which has its whole value in itself.


    Best regards!

  8. John-Brian Vyncent says:

    I believe there are, at the very least, two absolute moral truths: no sentient being — who has not violated the natural rights of another sentient being — may be subjugated in any fashion, and no person may participate in or further any form of willful deceit. This codification and respect of fundamental moral principles effectively nullifies, in my opinion, the possibility of moral dilemmas.

    In the analogy you present above, if I felt my mother looked bad then I do not have a moral dilemma. Truth never hurts; it empowers. Deception is ultimately, and always, self-defeating.The world needs more honest, direct and gentle truth, and no more lies presented under the guise of political correctness.

    As to the class I am interested in: Any one you teach that I can reach online (I am in the U.S.) but, hopefully, one in critical reasoning. I love the way you challenge my perceptions and positions so I shall either refine the presentation of my arguments or eliminate my deficiencies through your instruction.

    • Marianne says:

      So if there is a Nazi at my door asking if I am hiding any Jews I must tell him I am…if I am? Otherwise I would be wilfully deceiving him?

      And what if this is the first time you have seen your Mum looking cheerful for six months. Truth CAN hurt.

      Moral dilemmas arise because general rules (like ‘be kind’ ‘be honest’ must be applied in particular situations. There will always be situations in which they conflict and generate dilemmas.

      • John-Brian Vyncent says:

        The Nazi’s request would be immoral (subjugating the Jews) and not telling him you are hiding Jews (if indeed you are) is not the same as lying to the Nazi’s. In the immortal words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

        I see the conflicts and dilemmas you state; I just do not see the “moral” one. I could make the argument that in lying to my mother that she looked great would enable her to go outside and be ridiculed by others because she looked horrible. My deceit was then nothing more than a instrument used for greater harm. In every case I have ever debated with anyone, the ugliest and most brutally honest truth was always kinder and more loving than the most beautiful lie. Truth empowers our freedom; lies always enslave.

      • Marianne says:

        Ah now we are talking. What is lying if it isn’t intentionally saying something one believes to be untrue so as to mislead someone? I WOULD be lying to the Nazis, surely, but my lie would not be immoral.

        Yes, you could indeed decide that it is necessary to be cruel to be kind (you could similarly decide that you’d only be telling a white lie if you weren’t honest). But that’s what moral dilemmas are for: to force us to inspect our values and to see what it actually means to be kind or honest.

  9. iwasid says:

    So here is where we got to:

    @iwasid Problem is GHGN utilitarianism is an easy target. Other forms of consequentialism are available (as the BBC might say).
    @OxPhil_Marianne This is certainly true. Were you think of Rule Utilitarianism?
    @iwasid No. Consequentialism broadly, rather than Ute. Beginning to wonder if act-rule distinction not a useful one

    @iwasid Without consequences we don’t seem to have anything to be moral about, so clearly they are key in some way.
    @iwasid I didn’t buy Scheffler’s 3 “strong”, “compelling” objections, so it was more of an anti influence 🙂

    @OxPhil_Marianne It used to be thought the AU/RU distinction collapsed but then Rawls published his ‘Two Concepts of Rules’…
    @OxPhil_Marianne Two tweets for this: imagine you and I perform two identical acts, with identical consequences, but you perform….
    @OxPhil_Marianne … in order to do right, and I perform in order to impress you, there’s a moral difference isn’t there?
    @iwasid Agreed. But collapse? (Will Google this later)

    First thing to note is that the intention seems more important than the act there. The second is that we might be using not a “rule”, but an heuristic of some sort, a rough rule of thumb, as our standard for whether or not an action – or rather the consequence of the action – is moral. So talk of strict logical rules and acts might be missing the point.

    • Marianne says:

      Ah, help Iwasid – it would be much easier written in proper English rather than twitterese! Utilitarianism is only one form of Consequentialism, of course.Libertarianism is another. Any theory that evaluates actions in terms of their consequences FOR something or other is a form of consequentialism.

      I disagree with your (apparent) claim that ‘Without consequences we don’t seem to have anything to be moral about’. The example I gave to support my disagreement is this:

      Imagine that you and I are walking down Brasenose Lane from different ends. We each give the beggar with her child sitting in the middle, a £ coin. Inter alia these actions appear to be identical and the consequences of these actions appear to be identical. But they might not be morally identical. If you gave the beggar a coin to impress me, and I gave it to her because I believed it was right, then arguably, my action was a moral one, but yours wasn’t.

      As you say it is by appeal to the intention with which we morally evaluate the act, not the consequences.

      Not sure I understand the point you are making when you say ‘talk of strict logical rules and acts might be missing the point’. Will you explain….?

      • iwasid says:

        In the Brasenose Lane example, the consequences are a key part of what we evaluate when we evaluate the intention – intended consequences – they are inseparable. This is why I say “without consequences we don’t seem to have anything to be moral about”.

        ” ‘talk of strict logical rules and acts might be missing the point’. Will you explain….? ”

        When we use an heuristic rule, we are being probabilistic, thinking “this might”, “this is more likely than that”. We are working with uncertainty. I have an idea that when analytical philosophers talk of rules, they mean something a little more black and white that you can run through formal logic and get neat true/false answers. In the real world we can never evaulate the future with a great deal of certainty. In this sense, formal logic doesn’t lend itself to the problem of evaluating future possibilities in moral thinking.

        [The twitterese was merely an attempt to remain faithful to what was actually said].

      • Marianne says:

        I see what you mean. But the intentions themselves have moral value don’t they independently of the consequences. If I intend to take my elderly aunt out for tea and sadly she gets run over by a bus on the way, then my intentions were good and we can’t blame me for the consequences. Equally if you intend to kill me, but your bullet is deflected and instead kills Hitler your intentions were bad even though the consequences of your act…er …good. Aren’t they?

        But it is certainly true that without an action there is nothing morally evaluable and actions always have consequences. They always have intentions too. Both are important.

        There are two types of rule: ‘rules of thumb’ (probabilistic rules, rules we use to guide actions, but which are not unbreakable). And absolute rules, rules that are not breakable. Philosophers are well aware of the difference between the two. Not sure which world you think philosophers deal with, but we are quite aware of the fact that whenever we act we act on the basis of uncertainty.

        Yes, I guessed what the twitters was for – but still find it quite difficult – it is much easier here don’t you think? Hope so.

  10. iwasid says:

    “the intentions themselves have moral value don’t they independently of the consequences. If I intend to take my elderly aunt out for tea and sadly she gets run over by a bus on the way, then my intentions were good and we can’t blame me for the consequences. ”

    There are the intended consequences and the actual consequences. Here you speak of the outcome, the actual consequences. Forgive me for repeating myself, but intended consequences are an inseparable part of the intention.

    Also “without an action there is nothing morally evaluable” – consider a stated intention, “I am going to take Aunt Mildred to tea” or “I am going to drown these puppies”. The action in question has not taken place, but we can still evaluate its morality.

    Hence I still seem to be in a position where I believe that without consequences we don’t seem to have anything to be moral about.

    • Marianne says:

      Yes, indeed there are the intended consequences and the actual consequences. And, yes, intended consequences are an inseparable part of the intention. But they may be very different from the actual consequences.

      You are quite right that we can evaluate a stated intention – I was wrong to imply that isn’t possible. Thank you for reminding me. But without an action there is little for the law (for example) to get hold of – you can be arrested for ‘going equipped’ – i.e. before you have carried out the burglary, but you still have to have gone abroad with the stuff.

      But your last statement seems to contradict your claim that an intention can be morally evaluable.

  11. iwasid says:

    “And, yes, intended consequences are an inseparable part of the intention. But they may be very different from the actual consequences. ”

    Indeed, as we have covered in a variety of ways above.

    “But your last statement seems to contradict your claim that an intention can be morally evaluable.”

    There is no contradiction, though perhaps a little imprecision. I rather foolishly thought I didn’t need to continue distinguishing between intended and actual consequences when I said, “Hence I still seem to be in a position where I believe that without consequences we don’t seem to have anything to be moral about”. As you have already pointed out, it is not the actual consequences that we (usually) make our moral judgements about, but rather the intended consequences. An intended action is carried out in the belief that it will have intended consequences. Note, for example, how in the Hitler case above it is the intention, not the action, that is being evaluated morally, and intended consequences are integral to intention.

    • Marianne says:

      No, I disagree – some people make moral judgements about actual consequences. Anyone who is a utilitarian makes moral judgements about the actual, and not the intended consequences.

      We can, though, make a distinction between judging an agent, and judging an act. We judge the person on the consequences intended, but judge the act, often, on the actual consequences. So you might be a good person, who performs a bad action.

  12. boammarruri says:

    Hi Marianne
    I recently got introduced to your wonderful and illuminating Philosophy for Beginners Podcast.
    My question is why does utilitarianism say the good is what brings happiness for the greatest number? Why specifically the greatest number and not the least number, or the philosopher kings, or the powerful, or the richest? Why specifically the greatest number? Does it not become rather arbitrary that Mill chose the greatest number?

    FYI- Currently listening to your lecture on logic and arguments – absolutely wonderful!

    • Marianne says:

      Hi there, I am pleased you are enjoying the podcasts – I enjoyed making them! I should have thought it is obvious why a moral theory would say that the right action produces the greatest good of the greatest number, rather than the least number – why we want were, rather than more people to be happy if we were trying to do the right thing? And why give preferential treatment to any of the groups you mention . remember Utilitarianism purports to be a theory of morality. I am not sure why you think the greatest number is arbitrary…..? Marianne

  13. boammarruri says:

    My question of whether it is arbitrary comes from wanting to understand how Mill justified the basis of Utilitarianism. Why should we accept it as true that the right action is what produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Suppose I came up with my own moral theory- the morally right action is what produces the greatest happiness for greatest number of left handed people. Now naturally you would ask me why left handed people- and I would have to give some justification for that. Utilitarianism should do the same – why is it obvious that the right action should involve the greatest number of people? “why would we want less, rather than more people to be happy if we were trying to do the right thing?” It seems what you are saying is that more people happy rather than less people happy is the right thing – however you have not used utilitarianism to arrive to this conclusion and so how can you know what the right thing is.

    • Marianne says:

      His justification occurs in chapter four of Utilitarianism. Whether it is a good argument or not is still disputed. Spark Notes has an account of it here: http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/utilitarianism/section5.rhtml

      But surely if you think happiness is good, and not just for you but for everyone, it is only a short step to thinking the right moral theory is the one that makes everyone as happy as possible? The greatest number of people does not discriminate amongst people as ‘left-handed people’ would, it includes everyone.

      Utilitarianism is a moral theory – it attempts to say what the right thing is. To evaluate it we must use our intuitions about what ‘right’ is. Theory and practice are interdependent.


  14. David Lilley says:

    I have proposed that we don’t need have a twenty first century moral code because we don’t need one. The GHP is some 150 years old and the categorical imperative some 200 years old. But when making a new moral decision in a parliamentary democracy we don’t turn to bibles, the GHP or Kant’s beautiful practical reason. We just do a perfect job thanks to freedom of thought, speech and press, debate and scrutiny, green papers, white papers, public consultation, stakeholder consultation, amendment debates, risk analysis and second house review. If we discover some unforeseen downside once the new law is live we just correct it. And every parliamentary decision is moral through and through. Even when deciding to spend £35b on HS2 the opportunity cost is that we could have spent the money on the weak.

    • Marianne says:

      I am not sure whether you are speaking tongue in cheek or seriously? All the things you mention are, of course, based on the books and theories you mention (Kant, the GHOP, the Bible). Bt you must realise this so I think you must be speaking tongue in cheek – but if I am wrong do put me right!

      Would like to answer immediately your other posts, but have no time, will get back as soon as I can.


      • David Lilley says:

        Thank you for your reply. I am very serious. How many MPs other than the PPEs know about the categorical imperative or the GHP? And how many know very much about the ten commandments? How many would be astonished that “thou shalt not kill” is number six and not number one? MPs do often bring up J S Mill’s individual sovereignty which was a step beyond the GHP, beyond his father and godfather. Even the man in the street is quick to say “its a free country”. On Liberty has caught on and we generally accept that in the free world the individual can do whatever he likes as long as he doesn’t break the law (interfere with the freedom of others with Mill’s one exception). This and Hume’s guillotine (natural laws are fixed but we make our moral laws, they can never be derived from “is” statements) leads to my proposal that parliamentary democracies, as distinct from “vulgar democracy” (Mill’s term for rule by the majority, the worst kind of tyranny), provides all the moral guidance we need. The only thing we have to get right is the law and parliamentary democracies gives us perfect law as I explained above. What could be better than to be ruled by the best argument?

      • Marianne says:

        But it is not necessary to know about these things to belong to institutions that are based on them, and to come from a tradition that is based on them. We are a Judeo-Christian country despite the fact that so many fewer people are prepared to say they are Christian than even 50 years ago. I should imagine all MPs know the ten commandments (even if they don’t always observe all of them). It’s bei g a free country is possible only because we are a country in which the rule of law is largely observed and policed very effectively.

  15. Karel says:

    I will write a few remarks on utilitarianism and the topics I read in the comments on the question.
    I think the concept of happiness is very individual. Happiness for someone needs to be researched in nature, in genealogy, in history, and to use modern technology for their interests. In history, you meet important protagonists of history, and in a deeper study you will find that it was people who were turned to each other, to each other, and to solve their own problems, and their own mental problems. It is natural that one deals with one’s ego, probably no one can avoid it, but it doesn’t make much sense. It makes sense when one can do for others what it is in one’s abilities and possibilities. The genocides were caused by people who dealt only with themselves. I believe that many people suffer from the inferiority complex, and the way they want to get rid of that complex is not the right one. This, I think, applied to Hitler, for example. Morality depends on the level of the person, and the majority society is somewhere low. The problem is communication between people because people don’t understand each other. The fact that people do not understand each other is probably also a language issue.
    GHP cannot be the final word for morality.

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